South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) set off a domino effect yesterday with his decision to resign from the Senate -- opening up an immediate vacancy and adding a potentially combative GOP primary to an already crowded 2014 election calendar in the Palmetto State that includes Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R) re-election bid.
DeMint, who had already determined he would not seek re-election in 2016, announced yesterday he will resign from the Senate in January to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
DeMint's departure grants Gov. Nikki Haley (R) the ability to appoint a successor and sets up a 2014 special election to fill the remaining two years of the senator's term.
South Carolina operatives are girding for an uncommonly busy cycle -- and Democrats, whose fortunes have slipped dramatically in the state in recent years, are beginning to express some optimism.
"I think all of our races will be highly contested and highly watched," said South Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Amanda Loveday, who added that she expects national parties to invest heavily in the state. "You will hear more about the state of South Carolina than you ever have in 2014."
In interviews with South Carolina media yesterday, Haley declined to name DeMint's successor but said she intended to select a candidate with conservative values. DeMint is among the most prominent of the Senate's tea party contingent, who often backed GOP primary candidates opposed by the party establishment.
Haley did tell Greenville, S.C., radio station WORD-FM that she would not name herself to the post, stating: "I will not be appointing myself. That's not even an option."
Technically, Haley is unable to appoint herself to the Senate and would actually need to reach an agreement in which she resigned from the governor's office and Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell (R) would name her to the post after ascending to the governor's office himself.
But Donald Fowler, former chairman of both the Democratic National Committee and the South Carolina Democratic Party noted: "The record of governors who have appointed themselves to the Senate is not good: All save one have lost in the succeeding elections."
In South Carolina, then-Gov. Don Russell (D) made such a deal in 1965 when he took the seat of the late Sen. Olin Johnston (D). He was defeated the following year by Ernest Hollings (D) -- who was succeeded by DeMint in 2004.
In addition to Haley, Rep. Tim Scott (R), who represents the Charleston, S.C.-based 1st District, was among the rumored contenders to replace DeMint.
In an interview yesterday with CNN, DeMint declined to comment specifically on Scott as a potential replacement. He praised the South Carolina delegation as a whole, and added of Haley: "She's got a tough choice to make. But I'm convinced she'll give me someone as good or better than I am to pass the torch to."
But South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Richard Harpootlian expressed doubt that Haley would ultimately select Scott.
"The national party is enthralled with him, but there's no evidence that he's got any broad support in the state," Harpootlian said, adding that Scott could therefore be vulnerable in the 2014 race.
Harpootlian also insisted that despite Haley's statement yesterday, the governor could still opt to put herself into office.
"Nikki Haley has never, ever been constrained by anything she said more than 24 hours old," Harpootlian asserted. He pointed to a Winthrop University poll released Monday that showed Haley with a 38 percent approval rating and 41 percent disapproval rating among South Carolina voters. The poll of 929 individuals had a 3.5-point margin of error.
"She's going to have a tough time getting re-elected," Harpootlian said. "She's not a governor ... she likes to take policy positions, which is more suitable for a U.S senator than a governor."
South Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Matt Moore did not return a telephone call for this article.
But numerous observers also suggested Haley could appoint a "placeholder," such as former state Attorney General Henry McMaster (R), who would not seek re-election to the post. That decision would allow GOP candidates to organize for a competitive primary and general election that could easily cost as much as $15 million, according to several sources -- one that Democrats believe could also give them a better shot at capturing one of the state's Senate seats.
"The Democratic Party in South Carolina has not shown a great deal of strength in the last several elections," Fowler acknowledged. "I think Democrats should think very carefully through the options there. Can we raise enough money to support three statewide candidates in addition to all of the other statewide candidates we will have?"
Most Democratic observers declined to publicly name potential candidates, although some privately mentioned state Rep. James Smith (D), whose seat includes Richland County, where the state capital of Columbia is located.
DeMint's departure could make life easier for Graham, who was expected to face a primary challenge from the right in his re-election bid but now may see potential challengers depart to the race for DeMint's seat.
"I think that Senator Graham is going to be let off the hook a little bit on the Republican side," Loveday said. "It's easier to win a special election than to defeat an incumbent. ... The winner of today is Lindsey Graham."
Graham paid tribute to DeMint on the Senate floor yesterday.
"For the people of South Carolina, you've lost a great, strong conservative voice. ... We've had a great, long ride together," he said.
Shock among colleagues
DeMint's Republican colleagues were surprised to learn of his departure yesterday.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) clashed with the departing lawmaker on issues such as the wind production tax credit, which Grassley supports extending while DeMint has fought to end it. But Grassley did not expect DeMint's loss to mark the end of that policy fight.
"As important as he was ... there will be somebody as committed to his [position] as he was, and it'll go on -- and it ought to go on," Grassley told reporters in the Capitol yesterday. "Even though he and I disagree on a lot of things, he serves a very important function in the United States Senate, and there will be a vacuum, but vacuums are filled."
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the outgoing head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party's campaign arm, acknowledged that he and DeMint have occasionally disagreed on which Republicans to back in elections but that they had largely overcome their differences.
"Jim and I have probably agreed on 95 percent of issues, I guess where we've differed over time is on tactics, particularly as regards elections," Cornyn said. "But we pretty much resolved those issues, and like I said, we are both conservatives, and I look forward to working with him."
Through his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee, DeMint backed several conservative candidates who were not favored by the GOP establishment. Sometimes his backing produced victors, but other times the highly conservative nominees flopped in general elections -- when a more establishment choice might have prevailed over the Democrats.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who took over for DeMint as the head of the Senate Republican Steering Committee earlier this year and ran the conservative Club for Growth before he was elected, said he was "very disappointed" over DeMint's departure. He said it is too early to know how having DeMint outside the Senate will affect the party's chances of taking control of the Senate in the next election.
"I don't know what role Jim may choose to play in elections in 2014. ... But he'll be a very important voice, and I think he'll continue to be engaged in this battle," Toomey said.
Like DeMint, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has not shied from using all of the levers of power the Senate's rules give to individual members to hold up action on the floor in pursuit of conservative policy goals.
"He was an anchor for conservative principles," Coburn said of DeMint. "He was willing to take all the heat in the world because of what he believed in, and he learned how to do that effectively. ... We'll miss him. It's going to be a big void."
Coburn also said that efforts to raise money for conservative candidates will continue despite his absence.
"The Senate Conservatives Fund won't stop," Coburn said. "It's going to continue to be active in both the recruiting of candidates and raising money, and it'll grow every year."
DeMint cut his ties to the Senate Conservatives Fund earlier this year, when the organization converted into a multi-candidate political action committee instead.
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola likewise lamented DeMint's departure from Capitol Hill but praised the structure the South Carolinian built, which contributed to the election of Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), along with Sen.-elect Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
"We hate to see him go because we think nobody's done more for the cause of freedom than he has inside Congress, but he's done good work while he's there," Chocola said. "He's built a pretty strong pro-growth caucus that will carry on without him. ... I would be worried if all that wasn't in place, but I think he's just moving on to expand his influence in many ways."
In the CNN interview, DeMint asserted that while he had success "bringing in folks who better represent America to the Republican Party," he could be even more productive in the private sector.
"The thing that breaks my heart is, as Republicans, we're not doing a good job of convincing Americans that we care about every one of them," DeMint said. "I'm a conservative first. ... Frankly, if independents and Democrats want to work with us on conservative ideas, I can do that better at Heritage than as a partisan inside the Senate."